Dear Polly, Lying is one thing I really can't stand, so it is very upsetting to me that one of the four-year-olds in my class has started to lie. Can you help me help her? - Disappointed in Delaware

Dear Disappointed, Just about every child lies to a teacher, a parent, or even a friend. Why? Usually to avoid getting into trouble or being embarrassed, to make herself look good, to make herself look equal to or better than a sibling, or, in the case of children younger than six, because she isn't yet too clear about what's fact and what's fiction.

Lying to look good

In "The Child Who Blames Everyone But Himself," in the March issue of Early Childhood Today, we discussed guiding each child toward good behavior without being so severe that the child blames others for his own misdemeanors and so tells lies. Let's focus now on the child who lies to make herself look good.

What you can do:

Politely let the child know you don't believe her. Explain that she doesn't have to tell "pretend things" to make people like her. You might say, "I always like you, and I like you best when you're just yourself - the way you really are - and when you tell the truth."

Help the child develop her own strengths and specialties so she looks good in her own right. Now you can say, "No, you didn't really climb higher than Hank. But you really did tie your own shoes. Everybody has things that are hard and things that are easy. I'd love it if you would help Hank tie his shoes. (Instead of leaving the scene on a sour note, convert the conversation to a constructive situation.)

Fact or Fancy?

When very young children "lie," it's most often because what's real and really possible blur into what's wishful thinking or highly unlikely. (Think about it how likely is it that a monster lurks under a child's bed? Yet in a dark room, most children believe one to be there, or at least they believe the possibility that one could be there. We wouldn't say that a frightened child crying for protection is lying.)

What you can do:

Help the child distinguish between fact and fiction. Join him in dramatic play with blocks and miniature animals, dress-up clothes, or whatever he is playing. Let your pretending go further and further from reality. When the two of you are having a really fun time together and the play is fanciful, smile and say something like "We're making a great story, aren't we! We're such great pretenders! You have a wonderful imagination!"

Share age-appropriate, fantastical fiction. Then laughingly ask: "Could a boy who needs a place to play really play on the ceiling?" "Could an animal really talk?" Teach children that imagination and pretend are wonderful and help them clarify make-- believe versus truly true. Encourage your children to discuss this subject often.

Moral development is a complex process that involves maturation of the mind and the emotions. At the same time, we need to offer continuing guidance from infancy through (at the very least) young adulthood. Unfortunately, we can't simply tell a child what's "right" and what's "wrong" and leave it at that. Would that we could!